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Shopping Tips for Coffee

The issues:

Coffee is a global commodity, usually produced by small-scale cultivators in dozens of tropical countries across the globe. For something you drink every day, a simple cup of coffee can have significant social impacts on farmers and laborers as well as environmental impacts on tropical ecosystems. The most important impacts associated with coffee cultivation include:

  • Working conditions – coffee plantation laborers are often paid less than legal minimums, experience unsafe working conditions, and have limited access to basic medical care. Workers may also have limited or no labor rights to organize to improve their conditions.
  • Ecological impacts – When coffee is grown amongst shade trees, plantations can provide a habitat for beneficial native species. Beans grown in the sun produce a higher yield, but require more fertilizers and pesticides. Poor irrigation and waste management practices can result in soil and water degradation.
  • Energy use – Most of the energy/greenhouse gas impacts for coffee is a result of heating water to make a cup and wash the mug.
  • Health concerns – Coffee contains caffeine, which can cause adverse health effects in pregnant women and adolescents. Coffee also contains antioxidants, which are beneficial for health.

What to look for:

  • Certifications ensure your coffee has been produced under industry leading labor and environmental conditions. Fair Trade Certified means that coffee workers receive livable wages, fair labor practices and safe working conditions and that coffee is produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. Bird Friendly certification means coffee is grown in the shade of native vegetation and is in compliance with the USDA’s rules for organic production. Other recognized labor/environmental certifications include Rainforest Alliance and UTZ Certified. Starbucks is the only major brand to create a similar certification program (*C.A.F.E.) for their own products.
  • Packaging: Brick packs, laminate bags and bulk steel canisters are preferred packaging alternatives over single serve cardboard containers, plastic canisters, and glass jars.

GoodGuide Recommendation:

At the store

  • Buy only certified coffees to help promote basic human rights and environmental protections.
  • Compared to drip filter coffee, spray dried (instant) coffee uses less energy and has a lower environmental footprint.

At home

  • Heating water and washing the coffee mug are big contributors to the environmental footprint per cup of coffee, so don’t boil more water than required. Wash the coffee mug in cold water if possible, or at a minimum, in a fully loaded dishwasher. Recycle the container if applicable.
  • For health, drinking one cup of coffee a day (100mg of caffeine, on average) is unlikely to be harmful for the average person, and may provide beneficial antioxidants. However, pregnant women should restrict their coffee intake.

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